CHALK: The Path of the Circle

Hello Faithful Readers! Loyal blogslave Keith Hock here, and I want to take this opportunity to tell you a little about our upcoming play, CHALK, and its very interesting history, but in order to do that, I need to talk to you about stories. If you read my previous blog post about Star Wars or the one about Iphigenia you know I have a lot to say about stories, where they come from, and how they’re told and explored by different people and cultures. It may or may not be obvious to you that if you break down stories, and keep breaking them down, further and further until all you have is the bare structure, you start to find similar structures. There are only so many things that can happen to a character; how many stories can be described as “man is betrayed, seeks revenge” or “woman meets man, circumstances keep them separated” or “arrogance causes a person’s downfall” or “God floods the earth”? A lot, across all cultures. Some people much much smarter than me or you (well, me at least) realized this, and that these stories kept appearing over and over in different cultures, and they created something called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folk Tale Classification Index to keep track of them; to group similar stories, trace origins, and possibly discover the Ur-Myths that gave rise to them [A friend of mine who is also much much smarter than me clued me in to the existence of this amazing resource, for an unrelated project]. The story we are telling this summer would be classified as ATU 926: Clever Acts and Words, the Judgment of Solomon, otherwise known as the Circle of Chalk.

But the bare-bones classification number and description isn’t a story, much less a compelling one that you should go see in late June or early July. The structure is not the art, its just what holds the art together. How did this dry story structure, ATU 926, become a story you would be interested to hear? I am glad you asked, because that is the exact question I spent the next 2500 words answering. I would like to tell you the story of The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from its origin in the temple of Solomon, through South Asia to the Forbidden City, all the way back up the Silk Road to Europe from the Orientalist salons to the rubble of the Berlin Wall, where We Happy Few are honored to pick up the trail ourselves.

Solomon

The Judgment of Solomon, by Raphael.

The origin of the Ur-Myth that led us on the path that would eventually lead to CHALK is, in the nature of  Ur-Myths, likely destined to remain a mystery. The oldest version of the story that exists, and which I would therefore assert is the probable origin point, would be the famous Judgment of Solomon in First Kings in the Old Testament, dating, at the very latest, to around 500 BC. If you are reading this under a rock or immediately after an attack of amnesia and are therefore somehow unfamiliar with the myth, the basis of the story is that two women bring a baby to the king and each claim that the child belongs to them. Solomon, in his infinite wisdom, calls for his sword and proposes to cut the living baby in half and each presumptive mother be given an equal portion. One of the mothers rather spitefully assents to this suggestion, while the other pleads that she would rather see the child alive and raised by her rival than cut into pieces in front of her. Solomon cunningly deduces from this test that she is the true mother and awards her custody, and “all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice”. I am glossing over a few elements here (the women are prostitutes and roommates, the first one accidentally crushed her own baby to death by rolling onto it while sleeping and swapped her dead child with the other woman’s live one, the babies were born 3 days apart), but the basic structure is there. That structure is very simple. A child, usually a boy, is at stake, and two women claim it. It is one woman’s word against the other, and there is no way for any outsider to know who is telling the truth. The judge proposes a trial which will in some way harm the child, the true mother would rather give the child away than potentially hurt him, and the judge uses her compassion as evidence that she is the real mother.

Next came The Mahosadha’s Judgment from Hindu folklore. In this story, instead of two women arguing, it is a single woman and a shapeshifting ghoul who steals the child in order to devour it. In addition, the judge (in this case Mahosadha, an incarnation of the Buddha) knows from the beginning which is the true mother, as the ghoul was unable to conceal its red eyes or inability to cast a shadow from the Enlightened One. And finally, instead of threatening to cut the baby in half, Mahosadha draws a line on the ground, stands the kid between the women on it, and instructs the two women to pull the child to them. It proceeds the same; when the mother lets go she explains that she could not bear to hurt her child, the judge demonstrates from this that she must be the mother, and lectures the crowd and demon on the virtue of compassion. It is not impossible that this, or a similar story on the subcontinent, is actually the Ur-Myth; while the stories are similar, there are a number of key differences and there are no hints that clearly suggest one story was drawn from the other. The line on the ground and the arm-pulling is a storytelling advancement from bisection in the direction of the Circle, but no other version has the judge knowing the identity of the mother before he conducts the trial or any supernatural elements, both of which seem likely things to disappear as a story is refined. Since the earliest physical evidence of this story appears much later than Wisdom of Solomon, however, I am willing to give the nod to the Old Testament as the origin. It also pleases me aesthetically if the path of syncretism flows East from the Holy Land to the subcontinent to China, instead of beginning in India, moving first to the Levant and then doubling back to get to the Far East.

Mahosadha

Sudarshanarama, by Galle Naravala

Additional evidence that the story began with the Old Testament is the original Chinese version of the story, dated around 150 AD, which is much closer to the Wisdom of Solomon than that of the Buddha, but clearly carries elements of the Hindu story; two women are pregnant, one miscarries but conceals it, steals the other’s child in the middle of the night. The judge had the child stand in the middle of the room and the women on opposite ends, and run to snatch him up. The older woman grabs him first and he begins to cry, at which the younger woman lets him go for fear of hurting him. By this evidence the Councilor-in-Chief deduces that the younger is the mother. This story features two women, one whose child has died, instead of a monster, a point in Solomon’s favor. But it also shows the women themselves being forced to act upon the child, specifically pulling on him, instead of a threat of violence from the Authority, which leans towards the Mahosadha. It could still go either way (hell, maybe THIS is the first story and the other two are disseminated from it!) but given how old the Old Testament is I still give the origin to Solomon.

This story in turn gave rise to the first representation of the story to my knowledge in play format, in Hui-Lan-Ki, The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from about 1200-1300 AD. This is where things really start to change, as the myth acquires an actual story and characters with names to lead up to the final judgment, as well as, at long last, the circle on the ground. Unfortunately, as I cannot read medieval Chinese (or modern Chinese for that matter) we must rely on the prudish 19th-century Bowlderization translation of Stanislas Julien into French in the 1820s. This translation, while old-fashioned, is absolutely hilarious, primly informing us at a particularly salacious scene that “Here follow eleven words, expurgated by Stanislas Julien, coarsely describing the physical attractions of Chen” [Naturally it was the first order of business of Kerry McGee and myself in adapting to ensure that our text made explicit mention of the nature of Chen’s …substantial physical attraction]. They also curiously remove all details on the mechanics of childbirth “for reasons of propriety” but leave in every one of the 5 beatings that the female protagonist receives, a small but telling glimpse at the priorities of 19th-century Europe.

Chalk Circle

Unnamed Illustration in  The Story of the Circle of Chalk, trans. Frances Hume, published by The Rodale Press. Painted by John Buckland-Wright

But I have put the cart before the horse. Let’s look what has been added; a plot. A young woman’s family has fallen onto hard times when her father dies and she is forced to “sell her beauty” to support her mother and brother. The brother, ashamed by this, beats his sister and departs in a rage to live with his uncle. A wealthy man has become enamored with the young woman and marries her as his second wife, but not before her mother extracts a sizable dowry from him and then promptly dies. The man’s first wife becomes jealous of her after the young woman bears him a son. She hates her husband and is having an affair with a clerk [the well-endowed Chen; see above], and the two of them begin to plot a way to kill the wealthy man and take his estate. The young woman’s brother returns impoverished and the first wife gives him gifts which the young woman had originally received from the rich man. The first wife tells the rich man that the young woman had an affair and offers the gifts she gave as evidence. In a fit of rage the rich man beats the young woman and then is poisoned by his first wife, who frames the young woman and claims the child as her own. A laughably corrupt and incompetent judge hears the testimony of some bribed townspeople, beats the young woman, sentences her to death, and then beats her some more for good measure. On the road to the capitol for execution the young woman is beaten even more by her guards and meets her brother again, who now serves in the court. In the capitol her case is heard again by a competent judge, who smells something fishy in the details. He hears the details, including all the beatings, and then calls for a piece of chalk and draws a circle on the floor. The young woman proves her innocence by releasing the child when it cries out, the clerk is beaten until he confesses to the murder, and he and the first wife are sentenced to be “cut into one hundred and twenty pieces”. And they all lived happily ever after. Not an exceptionally stirring plot, but a real story with rising and falling action and characters with traits beyond ‘mother’ and ‘judge’, ripe to be further refined.

Which it, of course, was, by German playwright Klabund in Der Kreidekreis, the Chalk Circle, about 100 years later in 1925. The plot remains the same with a few additions meant to update the story for a new audience: the wealthy man drove the young woman’s father to commit suicide, the Imperial Prince meets the young woman in the ‘tea’-house before the wealthy man marries her, her brother has fallen in with a revolutionary secret society and is sentenced to death alongside her, her case is retried after the Emperor dies and all death sentences are appealed by the new Emperor, who just happens to be the same Prince the young woman met before, and they get married.  Also, very uncomfortably, the love-struck Imperial Prince snuck into the young woman’s room while she worked in the tea house and ‘made love’ to raped her in her sleep, which she believed was a dream, and the child is revealed to actually be the new Prince of China [Kerry and I made very sure that this did NOT find its way into our interpretation of the story]. This is the same story, with a handful of flourishes to make it more interesting for a German audience, but it is still recognizably a Chinese story.

That all changed with Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, the most famous interpretation of the story since Solomon (at least for now) and introducer of a number of story differences. I will not bore you with a full summary of Brecht, as it is a damn sight easier to get your hands on his plays than the Klabund or Julien, and I am already pushing 2000 words in this post. I will say, however that while the bones of the story remain identifiable, Cauc Chalk is very much its own story in a way that Der Kreidekreis was not. Brecht ditches the mother and the brothel and the affair and the poison, adds a literal class war, makes the young woman a fugitive, introduces some ancillary mean and selfish people, expands the character of the judge; he makes the story, in a word, Brechtian. Most significantly, however, he inverts the moral; the young woman is NOT the mother of the child, but a poor maid who protected the child from a mob when his mother abandoned him, and raised him herself, and when the trial comes, it is SHE, not the baby’s bourgeois mother, who is awarded custody. Also, in case his political leanings weren’t transparent enough, he adds a framing device where two neighboring kolkhoz argue about who deserves to use their adjoining valley that they liberated from the Nazis, and they turn to a character they address as “Comrade Agronomist” to settle the dispute before listening to the story of the Circle of Chalk. Brecht took the 2500-year-old implication in the myth that blood will out, that the bond of family is the most important thing in the world, and he asked if it was really still the best metric that we had, or if, perhaps, we should place more weight on a person’s actions and potential than on the circumstances of their birth. An altogether-too-relevant question for an exiled Communist German writer in the 1940s; a frustratingly-still-relevant question today.

Berlin Wall Falls

Muro de Berlin, photo by Alexandra Akavian

After Brecht, Charles Mee took a crack at the story in his own Full Circle, which he cheekily set in Brecht’s native Germany in the chaos of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. In many ways a shot-for-shot update of Brecht’s play, Full Circle doesn’t add much to the core of the Ur-Myth. Exploring the Ur-Myth and the meanings of love, duty, family, and obligation was never what Mee had in mind with this play, though; this play is about the cyclical nature of politics, and the crosshairs of Full Circle were centered on Communists, capitalists, revolutionaries, fascists…anyone who believes that there is a uniform System that would be the best for everyone, if everyone would only listen and do what they were told. Mee, in fine Mee fashion, does an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in every argument without suggesting a workable solution, enumerating what is bad without postulating what is good, and bringing everybody down a needed peg or two. The moral of his judge to the mothers is ‘If you let go of something it will be taken from you, and the winner is the person who ends with it’’. Because he is Charles Mee, he also has plenty to say about the role and purpose and meaning of art in society, particularly in the form of an exceedingly long speech he gives to his judge. As a play Full Circle is as great as your own feelings on Charles Mee and his particular style will allow it to be; as a piece exploring the Wisdom of Solomon…

All this, of course, brings us to OUR play, the next step along the path which we just began rehearsing this Monday. The Hebrews came up with the myth, the Hindus gave the actors agency, the Chinese fit the myth into a story, Brecht interrogated the moral of the myth, Mee used the myth to explore a different story; what did we add? Well, I suppose you’ll just have to come see the play in June to find out.

Until next time,
Keith Hock

STAR WARS? From the Screen to the Page to the Bar

Hello, Constant Readers, and welcome to a Very Special installment of the We Happy Few Blog. Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you not to get in cars with strangers or do hard drugs or play with guns (although…don’t). I won’t even lecture you about the dangers of drinking, because that would be both extremely hypocritical of me and directly contrary to what I wanted to talk to you about. No, I wanted to tell you all about a little staged reading we did for our friends at Eat the Rich last night, in celebration of Star Wars Day and their week-long Star Wars party, complete with a themed menu and (if I may say) excellent drinks.

Shakespeare Star Wars

That’s right.  Ian Doescher was crazy enough to adapt Star Wars into Shakespearean language a couple years back, and we were crazy enough to read a portion of it (the cantina scene, for obvious reasons), because, let’s be real, it would be hard to keep us away from something as nerdy as this. The primary reason for all of this was mostly just that it was fun and silly, and despite my best efforts people want to have fun and be silly sometimes.  But there’s at least a little bit of unpacking that we can do with this, and since it is my job to overanalyze and suck the joy out everything I touch, let’s get into it!

The key for us to remember here is that part of We Happy Few’s mission is to play around with classic texts and discover new and interesting things that we can do with or learn from them by approaching them from a different direction.  As you will all recall, our definition of “classic” is intentionally obscure, because while we want to explore what makes old stories great we don’t want to be stuck only telling Shakespeare and the Greeks. Those are good stories, GREAT stories, but they aren’t the only stories. So we loosen our definition a little. Star Wars might not be as old as Hamlet or The Iliad, nor as critically acclaimed as Long Day’s Journey into Night or The Crucible, but there is no denying that it is both a classic of American film and one of the most important science fiction films ever created.

star wars poster 1

L-R: (back row) Ted E. Bear as Chewbacca, Bob Pike as Han Solo, Raven Bonniwell as Luke Skywalker, Kerry McGee as Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (front row) Kiernan McGowan as R2-D2 and C-3PO, Tori Boutin as Greedo and Stormtrooper

The interesting thing about Star Wars occupying such a significant spot in the pantheon of cinema and storytelling is that it isn’t a particularly innovative story. Other, better writers than me have written at great length about how Star Wars follows Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey like Campbell himself wrote it as an example of how to execute the Hero’s Journey, so I will spare you the blow-by-blow of how perfectly Obi-Wan slots in as the Mentor or the way that each film so well encapsulates both a miniature Journey AND serves as a portion of a larger Journey spanning the entire trilogy (I assure you if you would like to follow up on that there are countless thinkpieces here on the Onlines for you to peruse). Lucas and co. took the bare bones of a story, the foundational tools of the concept of Storytelling, and they wrapped it in their own words and vision and images and ideas. The bones are still there and they are what makes the story work, but that isn’t what makes it the best science fiction movie ever made; it was the craftsmanship.

Star Wars Homestead Burned

From Star Wars, 1977, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

In similar fashion (and this is actually one of my favorite things about Shakespeare) almost every play he ever wrote was plagiarized from based on another, older story.  Pore through the index of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae or Holinshed’s Chronicles and you will see names like Lier, Kymbeline, and MacBeth. Caesar, Anthony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon, and Pericles were all famous names and stories to the Romans. An Italian novelist by the name of Matteo Bandetto wrote something called Guilietta e Romeo some 50 years before Shakespeare wrote his own, suspiciously similarly-named play.  Boccaccio’s Decameron is riddled with the plots of comedies and tragedies alike, and there are countless other plays in English and Italian from the previous century filled with twins, mistaken identities, crossdressing, shipwrecks and all the elements we now associate with Shakespearean comedies. Why did Shakespeare’s version succeed where all those other interpretations failed? He was a better writer than they were. We don’t read Shakespeare for the story, we read him for the poetry. Without the poetry Romeo and Juliet is as hackneyed a story as they come, and no one would tolerate Hamlet’s whining vacillation if he didn’t articulate it so beautifully. The plot isn’t the important part; what matters is how we tell it. We remember Shakespeare for bringing those basic stories to vibrant and beautiful life, just as we remember Star Wars for creating a thoroughly believable and livable universe and characters out of the most basic building blocks of storytelling.

Which, of course, brings me back to the reading we did last night, of Doescher’s retelling of Star Wars in the language of Shakespeare. If what I just spent the last thousand words going on about is accurate (and it is) then that reading would represent the perfect marriage of the world-building of Star Wars with the poetry of Shakespearean iambic pentameter, supported by the unshakable storytelling core of the Monomyth and brought to glorious life by our crack team of performers. In theory, by the numbers, it should be the most spectacular, memorable work of fiction ever conceived!  Was it?

Death Star KersplodeNo. It was silly and it was fun, which was the point. Doescher isn’t Shakespeare, nor does he claim to be. He put them together because they are two things that he enjoyed and he thought it would be fun to put them together.  We read it for the same reason (and also because Eat the Rich asked us to). Not everything has to be deathly serious and utterly committed to artistic integrity and literary theory, or so I have been reminded at my last performance review.  Sometimes things can be fun.

Speaking of fun, I strongly encourage all of you reading to check out Eat The Rich’s Star Wars Celebration, going on this whole week (including tonight and tomorrow!)  You should absolutely go tonight, and maybe for a little while tomorrow, before you come to OUR FUNDRAISING EVENT, conveniently located nearby just a few blocks from Eat the Rich! I hope to see you there!

May the Force be with you,

Keith Hock

Iphigenia: Director Chat!

Hello again, readers.  It’s me, blog slave Keith Hock, here with some more ranting and raving on the subject of our upcoming reading of Iphigenia.  We’re gonna mix it up today, however, and the majority of the ranting will come not from myself, but from the director of the reading and my maybe-boss, Bridget Grace Sheaff (the managerial hierarchy of We Happy Few is Byzantine, to say the least, and the only thing I can say with any degree of confidence is that I am NOT in charge).  Readers from the last time I had Bridget drop by will recall that she is much better at saying nice things than I am, so those of you still with functioning hearts should be very excited to have her back.  She has graciously consented to an interview which we certainly conducted face-to-face over tea, and not in any way over the internet and hours apart while we were both snowed into our respective apartments this previous weekend.


Keith: Tell us about yourself.  How did you come to be entangled in the WHF network?  Are you secretly gunning for my job?

Bridget: Wow. So suspicious. Why would I be after your job? Seriously. Drink your tea.
No, go ahead, drink it. It’s perfectly safe…

The short answer: I fell in love. It’s as easy as that.

The long answer: I think one of the answers I hear the most from theatre artists when they are asked how they get jobs is “It’s who you know.” Which, after you hear it over and over again, becomes quite annoying. But it’s truth doesn’t disappear. (These are my exact feelings about Taylor Swift songs- always annoying, always true to life.)  So, yes, I got involved with We Happy Few because I went to school with Bob Pike (the sound designer of Duchess of Malfi, CUA Class of 2014) who got involved because he talked to Kiernan McGowan (trusted Brain Trust member who also graduated from CUA (represent, amiright)) who is now engaged to Raven Bonniwell (co-founding Artistic Director).

Right? It’s who you know. But it’s also about finding your tribe, about finding people whose work speaks to you. So when I was looking for projects to get involved in, I took a look at the work WHF had done in the past, of which I heard nothing but high praise. And, I’ll tell you what, I don’t believe in fate. But I got pretty close to believing when it hit me that the goals of WHF and my goals were synchronous if not identical.

And so it’s less about me than it is about mission and goals and finding people who want to change the world in the same way you do. (Look at me, I’m gettin’ all misty over here.I am a fool/ To weep at what I am glad of.”) That should tell you everything you need to know about me. And I really mean that.

K: Drop some knowledge about the difference between directing a staged reading and directing a performance.  What about it is easier?  What is harder?

B: Directing a staged reading is actually quite difficult. You would think it would be easy. “Oh hey, all your actors will have scripts and they are just expected to stand and talk and sound pretty and make the right faces at the right time and you don’t have to worry that they don’t have it memorized or that they forget a costume piece or whatever, you’re going to be fine.”

That’s a surface level analysis of a staged reading.

In a staged reading, the text is the star. The play is the only ego in the room you need to be concerned about. It rules. It dominates. It stares you in the face and does that annoying nose-flick thing every nine seconds. It demands that you pay attention to it and acknowledge the wound that it opens. It says, “I am flawed and complicated and leagues deep with knowledge. I am older than you and I have something to teach you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY.”

Of course you have to do this with a full production. But in a full production, you get to use the text to do things on stage. In a staged reading, the text uses you to do things to an audience.

It’s vulnerable important work. It’s no less valuable than work on a full production. It just involves less props.

K: Why?  Why Iphigenia?  Why, specifically, THIS Iphigenia?

B: If I’m being totally honest (which I wish was a bigger failing of mine), I knew NOTHING about this play or even it’s original legend four months ago. As most things go in the Brain Trust [Editor: point of clarification; the Brain Trust is how we refer to the organizational core of We Happy Few.  My pitches to call it the War Council, the Synod, and the High Circle were rejected], one person suggests one thing, which leads to one person suggesting another things, which leads to Bridget volunteering to help in whatever way possible. In this case, it happened in such a way where Bridget volunteered to help cut and organize the script in a some sort of WHF fashion of changing the play and ended with a stellar cast of actors that make Bridget’s heart flutter. I didn’t choose Iphigenia as much as I stumbled over it one day, turned around to see what had made me lose my footing, and found this beautiful story that I can’t stop thinking about. This particular Iphigenia happened because of my absolute devotion to Racine and all things French. (I’ll get into that later). I will tell you that if I had to answer “Why this play, why now?” I would give you some long flowery answer that essentially boils down to this: what does it mean to sacrifice? When all instincts to love and protect and serve the ones we love fall short of what is asked, what is the precipitate of the reaction?

K: There’s a pretty enormous parallel between the Iphigenia story and the Abraham/Isaac story in Genesis, which I unaccountably managed to completely ignore in my previous blog post.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

B: I’m very Catholic, I have thoughts on everything. It actually is one of the things I continually come back to when I think about this piece. Of course, in the Abraham story, God was testing him to see if his faith was strong enough to trust something as precious as his son to the Lord (and, you know, is foreshadowing for the whole Jesus thing, but let’s not get into that because we could be here all day). In this story, it’s pretty clear that Iphigenia is going to die. She has to die. These gods work in a different way than the Judeo-Christian God, even the one in the Old Testament. I could get pretty theologically philosophical with you, but I only have minors in Theology and Philosophy. However, I have a major in Drama, so I instead am going to talk about how this is MAJOR DRAMA.  It’s a classic story, sacrificing your children. And both Abraham and Agamemnon are reasons that it is classic. It’s something we all identify with, even those of us without children. It’s access to our empathetic pathways is immediate. It sits on our skin and instantaneously seeps into our bloodstream. It hearkens back to landmarks in our mythic and spiritual culture that we all identify. And that’s why we can keep telling it today.

K: As a dame [Editor: I narrowly dodged a slap here], how do you feel about my assertion that the primary drama in this story is about how Agamemnon is forced into an unwinnable situation?  Do you think that is true, or am I blinded by my own undeniable masculinity about the true nature of the piece?  Does it change from version to version?

B: Yes. Thank you for asking this question. Let’s talk about this: Yes. I am a female director. Yes. There is some inherent male/female dichotomy in this play. Yes. I think that it is a really interesting aspect to talk about.

HOWEVER. For me, this is a play primarily about human beings, not just men and women. This is a play about family. This is a play about duty and sacrifice and loyalty and war and love and heartbreak and ruin and triumph and fate and God and country and children and, ultimately, fault. That’s the primary drama of the story. What goes wrong.

I think that you are structurally correct that Agamemnon’s struggle is the catalyst of the piece. That is what the through line of the story is saying to us. If we are going to look further at the piece, I think we need to talk about what changes from beginning to end. Elinor Fuchs tells us that we can find the heart of the story by setting the play in the middle distance and looking at the play through squinted eyes all the way through. And when we look at Iphigenia this way, we have at both ends parent’s fretting about the fate of their child. Even though Clytemnestra only comes in (like a wrecking ball) halfway through, she is the parent remaining onstage at the end while Ulysses describes the scene at the temple. This directly bookends Agamemnon talking to Ulysses at the initial incident of the play. And so my argument is that the true nature of the piece is not about men or women, but about how our labels and roles define how we react under pressure.

K: Who do you think is the most interesting/exciting character in this show?

B: I love Racine’s added character of Eriphile. There is something so April Ludgate about her. She speaks to a part of us that we all like to deny. We would all love to be the tragic hero. We would love to be the victim. We would love to be the martyr. Because those people are revered and respected and sacrificed for. And what’s great about Eriphile is that she LOUDLY wants all of those things. She is frustrated and annoyed that Iphigenia gets that kind of attention. What an amazing and very human desire to explore in this age of digitalization, of internet stardom and reality TV fame. And what a fascinating take on self-centered sacrifice. Where is the virtue in that thought process? I mean that question very seriously. I’m really excited to look at this character further.

K: Is there anybody you’re especially excited to work with on your cast for the reading?  Anyone you’re dreading?

B: I couldn’t be more thrilled with the cast! I’m excited to work with everyone. One of the big highlights of this for me is that I get to watch Melissa Flaim act. I have deeply and fervently admired Melissa since my time at CUA. The first time I ever saw her, I got to watch her fearlessly and with amazing grace tell a boy in my Drama 101 class that if he was going to be proud of doing half-hearted work then there was no reason for her to be in the room because he could do that without her. She taught me so much about how to be in command and watching her as Clytemnestra may be the highlight of my 2016.

I’m dreading working with Tori Boutin because she is my best friend and really talented and funny and clearly I hate her with my whole soul. (Is she reading this? I hope so. She’s gonna be so mad.)

K: This translation is, in the nature of French plays, structured as rhyming couplets.  How long does it take you reading it to not hear it all sing-songy and actually take it serious?

B: I think that verse text is my soulmate. It understands me in a way I don’t understand myself. I come back to it at the end of the day, safe and secure in the truth it provides me. I don’t know what it is, but I love French plays. Cyrano de Bergerac is my favorite piece of theatre of all time, Racine’s Phedre is my current dream project, and who doesn’t love Moliere? The rhyming couplets doesn’t bother me at all. I gave up the idea that something that rhymes sounds like songs a long time ago. (I mean, look at Sondheim. Rhyming or not, there is nothing “sing-songy” about that man’s work.)

To me, something is too “sing-songy” when it is just rhyming for the sake of rhyming. If it has purpose and drive, then rhyme merely helps bounce the actor from line to line. Really, if the text is about human beings, real and full-blooded people with real and earnest problems, then it’s not “too” anything for me.

The translation makes all the difference in my mind. My friend Bob once compared translating to carving wood. Pieces of the original block have to go, but if you are careful, you are going to get something equally as beautiful as the end result as you did with the original. When translating from French, especially translating Racine, you have to balance keeping the verse intact, the rhyme intact, the meaning intact, and the story intact. It takes a lot of skill and what is great about using the Cairncross translation is that so much of the original beauty of the text is preserved with great care and tact. It’s really exciting.


And there you have it, folks.  Hopefully this will have piqued your curiosity to see what exactly we’ve been talking about these last two blog posts.  Perhaps you are curious how Racine (and then Cairncross, and then Ms. Sheaff) were able to take this ancient story and update it, drag it from the Festivals of Dionysus in Attica some three thousand years in the past, through the court of the Sun King, and share it and make it relevant to you today.  It could be you want to know how exactly Bridget exists with all this passion clearly boiling out of her at all times, and you want to see how that manifests in her directing.  Maybe you’re mad at me for some reason and you want to attend this solely to yell at me for some error or slight I have made (It’s probably that last one, isn’t it.)  Whatever the reason, you should be able to satisfy your burning desires at our fundraising event, tonight at 7:30PM at CHAW in Eastern Market.  Free Reading!  Fabulous Prizes!  Cash Bar!  Cool People!  Donation Opportunities!  Truly the social event of the season.  I look forward to seeing you all there.

Iphigenia(s): History Lesson

Happy New Year, Loyal Readers, and welcome to an exciting new chapter for your favorite independent theatre company, We Happy Few! This will be a year of many firsts for us as we throw caution to the winds and, in brazen defiance of Friar Lawrence, Polonius, Gonzago, Nestor, and all those other stick-in-the-mud father figures our protagonists never listen to, we wildly experiment, take risks, and push our boundaries.  Experiments, risks, and boundaries like exploring non-Elizabethan theatre, as you may have guessed from my name-drop of Nestor in my list of father figures (as well, I suppose, from the title of this blog post, which is almost universally a giveaway of the topic of the accompanying blog).  First of all, well-spotted on Nestor, a fairly deep cut.  But I’m prepared to cut you one deeper; the story of Iphigenia.  Not old-school Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis OR Tauris, nor the avant-garde Charles Mee Iphigenia 2.0.  Not even Aeschylus’ lost Iphigenia (but man, wouldn’t THAT be a coup!)  But 17th-century Neoclassical Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Racine’s Iphigénie, which we are proud to bring to you at the end of this month in a totally free staged reading (follow THIS link for details). Later on, in a future blog post, we can delve into what exactly is so compelling about Racine’s interpretation of the story and why we chose to tackle it, but before we get to that I wanted to look at all these different versions of the story and address, specifically, what the deal with that was.

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR A  FEW 3000 YEAR OLD STORIES FOLLOWING.  ALSO TEDIOUS NAVEL-GAZING REGARDING STORY ORIGINS,  LONG-WINDED DISCUSSION OF GREEK LEGENDS, AND A SENSE OF PROFOUND DISMAY ON THE PART OF THE AUTHOR THAT SO MUCH GREEK LITERATURE IS LOST.

The original story of Iphigenia, or at least the time it was probably first written down, would probably have been in the Cypria, the first ‘book’, as it were, of the Epic Cycle (a series of poems depicting the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath; the only extant portions are The Iliad and The Odyssey; we know OF the others through summaries and references in other works).  The Cypria depicted the beginning of the story; as my readers will certainly remember, the Iliad is set a full 9 years into the war, while the Odyssey takes place after the war is won. Seeing as Iphigenia deals directly with how the Greeks got to Troy, the episode that tells that story would fall there.  However, as with the majority of the Epic Cycle, the VAST majority of Greek Theatre (including Aeschylus’ telling of the story in his Iphigenia), and Billy Shakes’ Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won, the Cypria is lost to the sands of time, and we must, unfortunately, swallow our tears and learn to accept that.

Great Library

The Course of Empire – Destruction.  Thomas Cole, 1836.

For that reason and for the purposes of this blog post I am willing to accept Euripides’ telling of the story of Iphigenia at Aulis as the ‘canonical’, if such a thing existed, true (or at least original) story.  It is also the simplest version of the story, and the version from which the other interpretations would most reasonably be retconned adapted; also, elements of other stories, most notably the Oresteia, only work if the story plays out as Euripides has it.  But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I can talk about how the story changed from version to version we have to discuss what the original story was.  What, exactly, happened on Aulis at the beginning of the Trojan War?

Briefly, Agamemnon had gathered the combined forces of Greece to Aulis to stage their invasion of Troy.  While there, he did something to offend Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt; to wit, killing a stag in a sacred grove, and then (exceedingly foolishly) claiming to be a better hunter than Artemis, the aforementioned Goddess of the Hunt.  So she stopped the winds and stranded the army on Aulis, and sent word through the seer Calchas that she would only allow the winds to return if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to her.  Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia to be brought to Aulis, and then vacillates in fine Danish fashion for a while, sending another messenger to send her home, which is intercepted by his brother Menelaus.  He lets the cat out of the bag RE: sacrifice to Menelaus and continues to be wracked with indecision.  Iphigenia arrives with her mother Clytemnestra and baby brother Orestes; to cover for her being there Agamemnon pretends to betroth her to Achilles.  The subterfuge is shortly revealed and Agamemnon makes up his mind to sacrifice her.  Her husband-to-be is understandably distraught and vows to prevent it, but discovers that literally the entire Greek army, including his own men, would rather kill Iphigenia than give up and go home.  Iphigenia assents to the sacrifice, and the play ends with her marching to her death and Clytemnestra weeping.

This is what I would assert to be the original story.  However, even before we branch into differing titles and interpretations, there is debate on whether or not this is the ‘true’, for lack of a better word, story.  The extant manuscripts include a brief scene after the chorus, where a messenger rushes on stage to inform Clytemnestra that Artemis descended from the heavens, snatched up Iphigenia before the knife could strike home, and replaced her with a stag.  This… lacks somewhat the ring of truth, even in a world where gods turn women into trees and themselves into swans.  It emotionally neuters the play and is not, in my mind, in keeping with the tone of Greek Tragedy as a whole, especially considering the generally lax attitude the Atreides have toward kin-slaughter. Speaking of the Atreides, it also explicitly negates the story of The Oresteia, the conclusion of their generational curse; if Agamemnon doesn’t kill Iphigenia on Aulis, Clytemnestra has no valid reason to kill Agamemnon at the end of the Trojan War, and if Clytemnestra doesn’t kill Agamemnon, Orestes has no reason to kill Clytemnestra, and if Orestes doesn’t kill Clytemnestra, Athena and Apollo have no reason intercede on his behalf and allow trial by jury to supplant the Law of Vengeance and, at long last, expiate the sins of his house (spoilers).  My research is of two minds about this discussion; the editors and translators of my copy of the play assert that scholars are more or less universal in accepting the final scene as a later addition, but they asserted that in 1958, and almost 60 years of critical analysis have passed since then.  Alternatively, the fine folks over at Wikipedia are more or less convinced that the canonical answer is that she is rescued at the last second, but they are anonymous Wikipedia editors and may well be C.H.U.D.s for all I know.

CHUD

A Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, C.H.U.D., 1984

In spite of my disapproval of the theory, the deus ex ending does have a disheartening number of adherents, including Euripides himself, who wrote another Iphigenia play entitled Iphigenia at Tauris.  In it Iphigenia has been whisked away from Aulis, deposited in the Crimea and made the High Priestess of Artemis for the Scythians.  Her brother Orestes bumbles his way there via shipwreck, seeking expiation for killing Clytemnestra, and is almost sacrificed in his turn before the siblings share a revelatory conversation about their homes which almost certainly served as an inspiration for the pay-out scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances (see HERE for more information about the Romances, written by Your Humble Narrator).  It also shares a good deal in common with another Euripides play, Helen, in which another important piece of Trojan history is rewritten; we discover that Helen was not in Troy at all, but secreted away to Egypt, awaiting rescue by her True Love, Menelaus!

These alternate endings read like fan fiction, as though someone read these stories and said “no, its too sad if she dies. What if INSTEAD, God saves her, and they become BEST BUDS” (Seriously, one of the other stories floating around is that Iphigenia becomes Hecate, goddess of witchcraft and hangs out with Artemis on Mt Olympus).  I know the Greeks literally invented the “deus ex machina” ending, but in general the Greek gods were not in the habit of SAVING human lives with them so much as ruining them, and it hardly seems likely that Artemis would want to let Agamemnon off the hook for his familial curse just because Iphigenia never did anything to anybody (this play was written 2500 years ago, OF COURSE the real tragedy is her father having to make a no-win choice). Having alternate endings and stories like these would seem like Bowdlerization if that weren’t such an anachronism, or if we had even the slightest indication the Greeks were concerned about the sensibilities of their kids.

Think of the Children

Helen Lovejoy, The Simpsons.

The version that we’re doing also deviates from what I will increasingly desperately and inaccurately call the canonical story, but it does so in a less “Mom stops the movie right before Old Yeller gets shot” and more of a “Frenchman updates the story to account for some 2000 years of advancement in storytelling” way.  A new character, Eriphyle, Iphigenia’s jealous handmaiden of uncertain parentage, is added and ends up narcing to the Greek Army about the nature of the prophecy.  Achilles and Iphigenia have been betrothed for some time, in order to inject some much-needed romance into the plot. Odysseus (or “Ulysses”, as Racine wrongly calls him) is given a handful of lines and allowed to serve as the mouthpiece and ringleader of the bloodthirsty, populist army. Also, in a Shymalan-style twist ending, it turns out that Eriphyle is Helen’s secret daughter by Theseus, that her birthname is also Iphigenia, and that SHE was the necessary sacrifice all along.  Eriphyle herself her quietus makes with a bare bodkin, Iphigenia is spared, and the brutal 10-year siege and subsequent sack of Troy can go on as scheduled! Everybody wins!  Except for Eriphyle.  And Troy.

You may notice I am cutting this new version an awful lot of slack, which should strike you as a very un-me thing to do, especially considering the scorn with which I addressed the other revisionist pieces in this blog post.  To which I say, first of all, I write what I am ordered to what I choose, I don’t have to answer to you!  On a less confrontational note, the Greek plays and stories exist as part of a much larger and interconnected narrative; even what little remains extant to us displays a remarkably complex relationship between an astounding number of characters, and our modern storytelling sensibilities tell us that there must be a single correct canonical through-line (get me drunk and ask me about the difference between the Lord of the Rings books and movies sometime for a belligerent example of what I mean).

Helm's Deep

Haldir (Craig Parker) and Lorien Elves at Helm’s Deep, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002.  They shouldn’t be here.

But there is little evidence to suggest that the Greeks themselves thought of them that way.  In fact, given that at least two surviving plays we have represent direct contradictions of the ‘traditional’ story, it could easily be argued that the opposite was true! These are the stories that the actual Greeks actually told, and seeing as there are fewer than three dozen Tragedies still in existence (7 from Aeschylus, 7 from Sophocles, and 19 from Euripides), it would be foolish to discount them from the discussion simply because I disapproved of them.  If the Greeks were opposed to deviation in their storytelling, what would be the purpose of different versions?  Yet we have records of multiple tellings of the same story; Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy versus Euripides’ play Orestes, or Sophocles’ lost Clytemnestra. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or At Colonus versus Euripides’ lost Oedipus. A Bacchae by both Euripides and Aeschylus.  A lost Ixion, whatever that is, by all three. We know so little of the stories the Greeks told that we treat everything we can find as precious, but they don’t seem to have felt the same.  These were not the sacred relics of a dead civilization to them, they were everyday stories, the casual backdrop to their lives. Earlier I described the revisionist stories as fan fiction; that description may be decidedly apt.

And if Greek storytellers didn’t consider themselves bound into that all-encompassing narrative, French NeoClassicists were certainly under no such compulsion.  Racine wasn’t creating a grand narrative with a pantheon of interconnected characters; he was updating a single story from that narrative to suit Renaissance French sensibilities. French audiences would have expected a romantic angle; he found one for them.  They would expect Odysseus to matter in a story that includes him; Racine conjured him some lines. The original Greek story is largely concerned with the inevitability of the will of the gods, as Greek Tragedies tend to be.  Renaissance France is not concerned with the desires of Artemis, however, so Racine created a new moral by punishing Eriphyle for her jealousy and betrayal of Iphigenia.  He was making the story accessible to his audience, and if there’s one thing We Happy Few is concerned with doing, it is making classical stories accessible.

So there you have it!  A laughably short crash course in Greek theatre and legend (I didn’t even TOUCH the Theban cycle, and then there’s the Titanomachia, and Herakles, and the Argo…), a meditation on the way cultures interact with their stories, and a sneak peek at our upcoming reading.  Join me next time when we go much more in-depth into the whys and wherefores of Racine’s Iphigenia with my younger, smarter, and prettier colleague Bridget Grace Sheaff,who drew the short straw and was roped into positively leapt at the opportunity to direct the reading.

Living Room Reads, a new series brought to you exclusively by WHF!

[Editor’s Note: Regular readers may notice some differences in the writing of this post.  It may seem less arch, less mean, more endearing and warm and positive. That is because a lot of it, and just about 100% of the good parts, were not written by me, Production Manager Keith Hock, but by Assistant Producer Bridget Grace Sheaff, whose spirit we have not crushed yet and who still has some joy in her soul. She has made a terrible, TERRIBLE error by allowing me to discover how good of a writer she is, and I would not be surprised if you saw more of her voice on this blog as I increasingly attempt to shirk my responsibilities and saddle her with writing duties.]

Hello again, fanatical followers of our tremendously popular blog.  I promised I would bring you another post soon, last time, and here one is, right on (intentionally nebulous) schedule.  “What could you have done so soon after your last impeccably-written blog post that would warrant another entry so soon?” you clamor. “You only write about things that you are doing and you haven’t staged anything else or done anything of public note this whole month!” you cry, a trifle judgmentally. “What could the subject of this blog post possibly be?” you shriek to the heavens in terrified confusion.

What we did, long-suffering readers and my only greatest friends in the whole wide world, was gather together a bunch of people, drink some wine, and read a play to each other, because when you work in theatre you have a different definition of the word “fun” than normals have. You see, it may come as a surprise to you, coming from your favorite producers of confusing classical theatre, but We Happy Few is staffed entirely by nerds. You heard me. We embrace it. We welcome it into our lives with a warm smile and a glass of red wine (though we wouldn’t say no to something stronger!) So, when we tell you that we spent our Saturday night sitting around a living room reading Caryl Churchill’s Dream Play out loud, we won’t be offended when you call us nerds, slap the books out of our hands, or push us into some lockers.

Revenge of the Nerds Gif

From “Revenge of the Nerds”, 1984.  Pictured: Ted McGinley and Donald Gibb.

 

If you’ve paid attention to the way we frame this blog in the past, Constant Readers, you should expect that next I would put some words in your mouth purporting to be some questions you have about something I just said, to spare me from having to learn to write actual segues and give me an easy opportunity to introduce our topics.  And who am I to argue with success.  Your questions about what I just said are as follows:

  1. We Happy Few doing Churchill? Don’t they do Shakespeare?
  2. Churchill’s Dream Play? Why not the original Strindberg?
  3. Couldn’t you all just read it in your free time? Why the public gathering?
  4. What does this mean about your next project?
  5. How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?

I am confident we can conjure up an answer for about 80% of these questions.  That last one, my friends, is blowing in the wind.

This first question was a little bit of a straw man on your part, seeing as we did an adaptation of a Poe story last month, and a Webster play in 2014, but we can dig into it anyway! Let’s start by defining and operationalizing a few things here. We Happy Few works with classic texts in a stripped down, straightforward, no-nonsense/all-nonsense sort of way. We all know this. What is a little more fluid is the definition of what we consider “Classic.” There is a lot to unpack in that word. We by no means are the experts on what constitutes a “Classic”; after all, this is a vague enough term that any story might fit inside this definition with some fairly flimsy justification. When we start identifying works outside their structural genre, the world gets a little trickier. What’s the difference between an adaptation and a new work? Where is the line between translator and playwright? Defining plays under these umbrellas helps us pinpoint a means to our end, but doesn’t always help us with semantics. When We Happy Few thinks of “Classics,” our eyes are drawn to stories that are told and retold in new ways by many different artists.

 

Enter Dream Play.

CUA Dream Play

From CUA’s 2013 production of Dream Play.  L-R: Natasha Gallop, Kiernan McGowan, Kimberlee Wolfson, Samantha Smedley, Claire Aniela, Joseph Weber, Seth Rosenke

Strindberg wrote Dream Play just after the turn of the twentieth century. (For those of you that like math, that’s 114 years ago. For those of you who don’t like math, it was way before you were born.) Churchill’s adaptation was brought to the London stage in 2005. And betwixt and between those two dates, a number of very famous adaptations popped up and gained widespread popularity.

Why do we keep coming back to Dream Play? Could it be (perish the thought!) a Classic?

 

We Happy Few thinks so.

 

Familiar enough with the basic premise of the play, and leaning somewhat on the experience of former WHF sound designer Bob Pike and …this memo says I have to say Senior Executive Producer, Actor Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary, The Right Honorable Kiernan McGowan when they staged it at Catholic in 2013, we turned to Caryl Churchill’s version as a study of adaptation and revitalizing a standard for a modern audience. We got to ask the play some questions and it asked some back. (Yeah, the play talks to us… why, is that weird?) Reading it as a group allowed us to experience the play in the same time and space. Plays aren’t meant to sit on the page, we all know that. But we take for granted that very obvious essence of a play sometimes and forget that the play moves with us, lives with us, confronts us, pushes us away, and pulls us back in. It’s a verb. Theatre is just verbs. “Play.” “Act.” “Watch.” “Perform.” “Design.” “Write.” “Fall down in exhaustion after a 12 hour technical rehearsal.” You get the picture.

And so with several bottles of red wine, pizza, a few good friends, a few great friends (which is which? Fight amongst yourselves) and the words of Caryl Churchill, We Happy Few got to throw all of our ingredients into a pot and see what kind of stone soup we came up with. Reading the play led us to talking about our mission, long term goals, the heart of the play, the nature of devising, and even the lighter, humorous side of this dense, cerebral play.

WHF Dream Play Living Room Read

Living Room Read of Dream Play at We Happy House, 2015. L-R Tori Boutin, Bob Pike, Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee, Keith Hock, Adaire Brooks, Kiernan McGowan. Not pictured: Nathan Bennett, Che Wernsman, Bridget Grace Sheaff

 

What comes next?

 

That’s a really great question, blog.

For that, you’re just going to have to keep your eyes out, aren’t you? Big stuff is coming your way, world. Our little band of brothers has not yet begun to fight.

Needless to say, We Happy Few is going to keep digging into the beauty of plays like Dream Play to find what our audience needs to hear in this increasingly confusing time. As we move forward, we keep one foot firmly planted in our past, strengthening ourselves from those who came before us. And if Churchill’s fragmented, non-linear, metaphoric play can provide us with any answers, then bring on the dream dictionaries.

“What’s poetry? It’s not real but maybe it’s more than real. It’s dreaming while you’re awake.”

CARYL CHURCHILL, A Dream Play

Cask of Amontillado: From the Page to the …Bar

Hi everyone! Did you miss me? It’s Keith Hock, We Happy Few’s Production Manager, Technical Director, and, according these new business cards… Blogslave [that can’t be right]. Today I’m here to tell you about something that we did for Halloween. I don’t just want to brag to you about how we did a cool thing that you probably didn’t see (although, in your face, it was awesome), I wanted to talk to you about what we did, why we did it, and how it worked. By the end of this post, if I’ve done my job correctly, you’ll feel like you were really there!

First things first. What did we do that I will spend the next 1500 words talking about? If you would take the time to look at the title of the blog post you’re reading you would realize that it PROBABLY had something to do with The Cask of Amontillado. In point of fact, we performed it, but that’s not all! Not only did we perform Cask, we performed it on Halloween night, and not only THAT, we performed it in Mockingbird Hill, a sherry bar. I would hope that at least the superficial reasons why would do such a thing be obvious, but because I love the sound of my fingers clattering on a keyboard I will explain our reasoning, from the simple to the literary to the practical.

Poe

From a superficial angle, Mockingbird Hill asked us to perform this piece on Halloween because it is a SPOOKY STORY ::wink:: that prominently features a CASK OF SHERRY ::wink, wink::. You would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate choice of story for a Halloween reading for ANY bar, much less one known for its sherry. If you WERE inclined to seek other booze-themed stories to read, however, Poe would probably be a good place to start (much better than that teetotaling racist H. P. Lovecraft). Poe is somewhat of a hero around Mockingbird Hill for his fondness for sherry specifically and drinking in general. He is even more of a figure in his native Baltimore, which seems to have forgiven him for dying penniless, drunk and alone in one of their gutters and has both a football franchise and brewery named in honor of his most famous piece, The Raven.

Poe would be an excellent choice for a Halloween READING, but, as my astute readers may have noted, we did not simply put on a reading, we had a PERFORMANCE, and performances are a horse of a much different color. Poe wrote his stories to be read; at most read aloud. Only once did he set his pen to write a play, and that unfinished, so we must take some liberties and do some adapting to bring his work from the page to the stage. In this, as well, Cask is uniquely suited within Poe’s bibliography for performance. It holds a number of advantages over other stories. It has two characters engaging in dialogue, for example, a trivial-sounding but important mark in its favor. The horror genre being what it is, an investigation of the unknown and unknowable, a mirror in our souls reflecting the darkness surrounding us (or is the mirror on the outside reflecting the darkness within?), stories in the milieu tend to be intensely personal and singly narrated. There is a reason both Lovecraft and Poe preferred to structure their pieces as the diary entries, letters, confessions or reminiscences of men going mad or killing themselves; to fear is to weaken, none would CHOOSE to share their fear unless they had no choice. Even this story, we discover at the end, is a confession of sorts, taking place long after the events described within. However, until it reaches that point, Cask remains more or less a dialogue and, if not unique, certainly unusual in the horror canon, an oddity we will gladly turn to our advantage.

Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter

The Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter, Bill Keane & H. P. Lovecraft

Cask has additional advantages, from a practical perspective; namely, it takes place almost entirely in a creepy cavern, surrounded by darkness and aged bottles of wine, eerily similar to the interior of Mockingbird Hill even before our Montresor, the inimitable Kerry McGee, graced the wall with a handmade banner of the family crest. Compare this setting to The Fall of the House of Usher’s disintegrating mansion, or the overkill oubliette of The Pit & The Pendulum, or The Masque of the Red Death’s seven-roomed Rainbow Party Palace. Creating an appropriate setting can be set aside for a reading, such detail is unnecessary for a reading, but as I’ve said time and again, we put on a PERFORMANCE, and unless your performance is Our Town [never do Our Town], it is useful to your audience to at least create the illusion that your characters are somewhere else than “in a bar on Halloween” or “standing under hot lights surrounded by people”. It doesn’t have to be much (our own Hamlet had nothing more than a box filled with mirrors and some rapidly changing costumes), as long as you demonstrate to your audience that for the next few minutes or hours they are not where they are, but where you want them to be.

From We Happy Few's 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few's 2015 Production of The Cask of Amontillado.  L-R audience members, background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

But enough about what makes The Cask of Amontillado such an excellent choice for this event. Why, as I have been so insistent, did we choose to do a performance instead of a reading? What was gained by our performing it? Why go through all that trouble?

I am glad you asked. The primary reason is that we are a THEATRE COMPANY, not a literary society. Performances are what we do. This is not to say we are above staged readings, a time-honored tool for approaching and performing scripts that we, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, may be showing off for you in the not-too-distant future. Simply that, in this situation, with this piece, and this setting, it would be a criminal waste of their talent for us to give scripts to Raven Bonniwell and Kerry McGee and then tell them “uh, yeah, just stand there and read it out loud” [Also, I would be fired if I spoke to them that way]. Indeed, Mockingbird Hill HAS in the past simply done staged readings of this piece for Halloween. In the last two years they have realized how much more interesting they can make it by having it staged instead of merely read.

The second, and arguably more interesting, reason, is that it allows us to draw additional meaning from the piece. A cursory glance through the text will tell you that it is absolutely RIDDLED with meaning and references, some more transparent than others (any idiot can suss out the significance of Masonic imagery or the appropriateness of the Montresor banner; how significant is it that it was Carnival, or that the walls are covered in nitre, or that the cask is specifically of Amontillado?  I don’t know, but I would wager that they matter). By staging it we can explore the text more thoroughly, emphasizing some of the meaning and, I dare say, adding some ourselves.

As one might expect from a story that is predominantly set in a labyrinth of crypts and ends with one of the characters entombed behind some fresh masonry and a wall of bones, The Cask of Amontillado trades heavily on a sense of claustrophobia. Time and again we are reminded of the dampness of the environment, the foulness of the air, the bones of Montresors past surrounding, the cramped tunnels and the dreadful solidity of the granite around them. But it is one thing to read of such things, it is another entirely to watch, shoulder to shoulder, crowded in around our actors as they hike through the tunnels into the pit. Barely able to turn around lest they strike an audience member, bound not by their imaginations as to the dimensions of the tunnels but by the reality of their playing space, they bring the audience into the abyss with them, to the point that when they lifted their flambeaux upward to observe the “nitre” on the ceiling, the audience looked as well, though there was nothing on the ceiling but heating ducts! And while the description of Montresor walling Fortunato up in her tomb, laughing and screaming the whole way, is something quite brutal, it doesn’t hold a candle to the finality of a screamed “Yes, for the love of God!” and a door closing on the terrified but very real face of Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few's 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunado), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunato), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

In this way we can accentuate what is already there. But what of adding our own meaning, as I alluded to earlier? It is also very doable (I would never lie to you) and in this case it is accomplished by the exact same means; the crowd surrounding them. As you may recall, at the very end we discover that this murder was committed some 50 years before, and that the remains have not been disturbed in that intervening time; indeed would be difficult to even find re-concealed behind the bones. And we have noticed that Montresor is at some pains to conceal her crime; in addition to sending her staff away, she chooses the bottommost crypt in her family’s creepy labyrinth of a wine cellar, and seals Fortunato away behind both a wall of bricks and a pile of bones. Note also that, though she had her rapier, she did not stab Fortunato, simply left her to starve, eliminating the potential for a bloody weapon in her possession. Montresor has completely concealed her crime and, within the context of the story, her explanation at the end is little more than an opportunity to reveal the 50 years twist (with a minor twinge of guilt). With an audience, however, her final pronouncement changes the tenor of the whole venture; her attitude (at least in Kerry McGee’s capable hands) changes to a taunting gloat to an appreciative audience. In other hands, with different motives or a simple framing mechanism (even a different setting or new costumes) it could be a confession to a priest or detective, a confrontation with a new generation of Fortunato, an explanation for a new generation of Montresor, the raving of a lunatic…options as wide as your director and actors’ imaginations.

I hope you all enjoyed my lengthy and pedantic explanation of our choices and methods in our recent performance of The Cask of Amontillado. If you liked this, please let me know! If you hated it, let me know that as well! I’m not going to stop writing these anytime soon, though, in fact you should expect another one later this month. As we expand our wheelhouse beyond the Elizabethan and begin to explore more and different pieces, you will find me there, to ruin the mystery and explain the magic. Until next time,

I have the honor to be, Yr Obedient Servant,

K. Hock

The Winter’s Tale: Putting the “Few” in We Happy Few

Well, hello again, adoring fans.  Fancy seeing you here, on our blog, of all places.  It’s still me, your handsome, clever and oh-so-humble production manager Keith Hock, with another blog entry, just in time for our second weekend of shows.  After our opening night last Friday I was sat in front of a computer and told if I didn’t write another post by the next weekend I would be fired realized that this show’s aggressive double-casting gave me a wonderful opening to put together another blog post to share with you all.

Surely some of you, as you left our shows last weekend, had wondered why we would take a play with a cast of 18 named characters and innumerable Guards, Lords, Ladies, Mariners, Gaolers, Shepherdesses, Satyrs, etc., and attempt to put it on with only six people.  And doubtless you would cast your mind back to our previous shows (as I have no doubt you are all long-time fans and have seen all of our performances) and you would be struck! astounded! to realize that, why, we’ve never had more than eight actors in a show!  How can such a thing be?  Well, don’t you all worry your pretty little heads, I’d be more than happy to assuage your fears and give you all a peek behind the dramaturgical veil as to how, and, more importantly, why We Happy Few puts on plays with so few actors. (There’s some arts-management reasons that I’ll go into as well, but that’s not NEARLY as sexy as the phrase ‘dramaturgical veil’).

As you have all noticed, in the narrative I have constructed to frame this blog posting, all of our shows have been notoriously light on actors.  Our last three shows, Duchess of Malfi, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, all had only eight actors, while our debut, Hamlet, tied Winter’s Tale with six!  For reference, going on their Dramatis Personae pages, those shows called for 15 (Duchess), 20 (R&J), 12 (Tempest), and an astounding 22 (Hamlet) named characters*, not to mention anywhere from a magical island to an entire vendetta-fueled city full of supernumeraries.  The Tempest made up for its relatively light 12 characters with a veritable brugh’s worth of fairies, spirits, nymphs and reapers to fill the stage.  We very cleverly sidestepped that issue by turning all of those fairies into Ariel, and then also casting everyone in the show who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel, but how do we deal with the apparent 45-person cast list that Shakespeare [or Webster] has presented us with?
*I say ‘named’ characters but I’m also counting significant characters.  In Hamlet, the gravediggers, the head player, and the priest are all nameless, but since they play substantial roles in their respective scenes (more important than some with actual names, as you’ll see below) they all got counted in my census.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines.  Foreground: Andrew Keller

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines. Foreground: Andrew Keller

The answer is we don’t, neither us nor pretty much any other theatre company in the world.  As cultured citizens of the world I am sure you all go to see plenty of plays that AREN’T We Happy Few-produced, and I’m equally sure that you’ve noticed that the actor bio sections of the programs aren’t 20 pages long and filled with Servants, Soldiers and Guards.  There’s a reason for that.  Did you remember that there was a character named Fortinbras in Hamlet?  What about Voltimand, or Cornelius?  Sometimes we realize that a character doesn’t need to be there, or a scene goes on a little too long, so we do some cutting and combining.  Instead of Reynaldo (Polonius’ servant, apparently) and a whole crowd of other, nameless servants jostling around in Elsinore, we just use Reynaldo, whenever a servant appears.  Or we decide that the play can survive without servants, and we ditch them altogether.  I’ve seen full-stage, big budget productions of Romeo and Juliet that just completely did away with Paris.  Our own Hamlet excised Horatio, and nobody missed him.  It’s not that these characters and scenes don’t serve a purpose in the text, Shakespeare did little needlessly (I’m ignoring Timon of Athens when I say that).  They just don’t serve a purpose in the story we’re telling, so off they go.

All theatre companies do it, but we have to do it more than most.  As a predominantly Fringe company, with a stated focus on creating “stripped down, small cast, ensemble productions”, our timing and manpower is intentionally limited.  We bring all of our shows down to 90 minutes by the time we open, and we do it by scrapping every beat, every moment, every character, that isn’t completely necessary to telling the story we want to tell.  Sometimes that can hurt.  Did you know there was a surprisingly prominent Duke Ferdinand/werewolf subplot in Duchess of Malfi?  I did, because I watched us gradually pare it away in rehearsal as we fought to get to 90 minutes.  In addition to being crazy badass, it was powerful character development for Ferdinand, who loses his already-tenuous connection with his humanity after the barbarism of his parricide and talks himself into the belief that he is a wolf.  We were all sad to see it go, but we knew that it was a few minutes worth of dialogue we couldn’t afford to tell the story we needed to tell.

Don't judge me.

Greater Werewolf, 5th Edition, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Dennis Detwiller

Cutting characters and scenes is all well, and it certainly helps us lower the cast requirements (which you’ll recall is the point I’m supposed to be making in this post), but it only gets us so far.  What we really do to cut that down is double-cast, have one actor play two (or more) roles.  This buys you a lot of space, as many of your actors in smaller roles can serve double duty.  Sampson done being in the play after Act I?  Stuff him in a monk’s robe and he’s Friar John!  All your sailors drowned at the beginning when Prospero brought forth the storm?  (they didn’t, re-read Act I Scene 2, but they’re never seen again so its the same thing)  Roll them in glitter and now they’re spirits!

Combining these two things, cutting and double-casting, can usually get you to somewhere around 12-15 actors.  That’s pretty good, and it works for other companies, but it’s not enough for us.  We take our double-casting a step or two further than a lot of other companies.  Earlier I mentioned that the actors that are double cast are usually the non-leading parts, because they have fewer lines and are in fewer scenes; their casting is a matter of convenience.  OUR double-casting is deliberate and ubiquitous, especially under the guidance of director/producer/founder/superhero, Hannah Todd.  In her productions the only characters we have NOT double-cast were Prospero in The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet in… Romeo and Juliet; Prospero to emphasize his control over everything that happens on the island, and the star-crossed teens to point out their solitude as the only lovers in a city full of hate (My astute readers will argue that Hamlet was single-cast as well, but our Hamlet also spoke the lines for his dead father.  Whether or not the ghost should count as a character in OUR interpretation is up for debate, but since he had two character’s worth of lines he counts as double-cast for my purposes).  Everyone else has been at least double cast, and most of those casting choices have been meaningful, not just a consequence of what scenes happened when.  It was no coincidence that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were also Ophelia and Laertes, or that Tybalt was also the Nurse, or that, as I mentioned earlier, everyone but Prospero, even Caliban, was Ariel.  These choices serve a greater thematic purpose and say more about the show than simply what actors are available for those scenes.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Raven Bonniwell (Ophelia), Billy Finn (Laertes).

From We Happy Few's 2012 Hamlet.  Left-Right: Billy Finn, Chris Genebach, Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Billy Finn (Rosencrantz or Guildenstern), Chris Genebach (Hamlet), Raven Bonniwell (the other one).

But we have attained more saturation with our multi-casting for The Winter’s Tale than with any show before.  If you saw it already, surely you realized how significant it was that Kerry McGee embody both Mamillius and his sister Perdita, or that Kiernan McGowan play both the doomed Antigonus and the servant who relayed his demise, or that Raven Bonniwell portray both Hermione and Camillo’s mirrored punishments.  How fitting that Nathan Bennett give us both the prideful, paranoid, appearance-obsessed Leontes and the ludicrous cross-dressing confluence of Dorcas and Mopsa.  How touching that Katy Carkuff deliver the baby Perdita as Paulina, and raise it across the sea as the Shepherd.  And how truly remarkable that William Vaughan’s nameless lord (guard?) who comforts Mamillius in the beginning, turn out to be none other than Perdita’s love Florizel at the end.*  I told you last time there was magic to be had by the double handful in the Romances, you just have to know where to look.

*If you didn’t realize how all this was to be significant, or haven’t seen it yet and have no idea what I’m talking about, tickets are still available for all our upcoming shows here!